Progressive candidate Jessica Benham is challenging Pittsburgh’s most conservative Democrat | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Progressive candidate Jessica Benham is challenging Pittsburgh’s most conservative Democrat

click to enlarge Jessica Benham - PHOTO COURTESY THE CAMPAIGN
Photo courtesy the campaign
Jessica Benham
Pennsylvania House District 36 encompasses most of Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhoods and also Baldwin and Brentwood boroughs. It’s a liberal district that in 2016 voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 56-39 percentage margin.

However, for the last 24 years, it has been held by one of the most conservative Democrats in the state legislature, state Rep. Harry Readshaw of Carrick.

But a young, progressive Democrat is hoping to change that. Jessica Benham, an autism advocate and community organizer, announced yesterday her intentions to run for the 36th District seat. Benham, of South Side Slopes, says that after attending local meetings over the last year, she felt motivated to answer people's call for a candidate with “truly Democratic values.”


Readshaw, who does support Democrats on labor and other issues, has a history of siding with Republicans on several contentious policies, including gun control, abortion, and immigration. In 2016, he was a co-sponsor of HB 1885, which, if passed, would have cut off funding to so-called “sanctuary cities,” likely ending some state funding to Pittsburgh. This year, Readshaw voted with Republicans to pass a bill to ban abortions when a fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome. And this week, Readshaw co-sponsored a bill that would require local municipalities reimburse legal fees if a local gun ordinance is challenged in court and found illegal.

Pittsburgh recently passed local ordinances banning the use of high-capacity firearms and ammunition in the city and has since been sued by gun advocates.

Benham says her campaign would focus on granting people health care that is free at the point of access, ensuring access to reproductive healthcare and increasing infrastructure funding for the district, especially concerning flood mitigation.

“There [has] been study after study showing us what we need to do along route 51 to stop flooding, we need to make investments in what is becoming a disaster zone,” says Benham.

She acknowledges Pittsburgh city officials are starting to think about investing in infrastructure for this area, but says the state’s funding and attention are crucial to really address the issue.


Benham also says she would vote against the gun bill that Readshaw recently co-sponsored. She notes her support for Act 79, which requires Pennsylvania residents convicted of domestic violence or subject to final restraining orders must surrender their guns and ammunition. Readshaw voted against this bill, even though it eventually passed and was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Benham is also autistic and would likely be the first openly autistic person elected to a state legislature. She has been a loud voice participating in rallies and protests calling for more disability rights. Benham says this experience and her master’s degree in health-care ethics from the University of Pittsburgh are key to her advocacy, particularly when it comes to health care.

“Anytime a Pennsylvanian seeks medical care, they should pay nothing at the point of access,” says Benham, noting her support for single-payer health care policy, though has not backed any specific bill yet. “For me, this issue is important, I live with a preexisting condition and I have experienced not being able to afford medical care. It may mean that wealthier people may need to pay more, and I am aware of the barriers to accomplish that. But we need systemic change.”

Ultimately, Benham says her campaign will try to forge a positive and progressive vision for the 36th District. She is hopeful the effort will be led by residents of the district.

“I am most excited to listen to folks, and to hear about what matters to them the most,” says Benham. “And to hear about what their ideas are to build a brighter future for the 36th District.”

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